(By Kim Zetter) An Ethiopian journalist has reportedly fled his country after government authorities interrogated him over a WikiLeaks cable in which he was mentioned.
It appears to be the first confirmed case in which someone identified in the raw, unredacted files that WikiLeaks recently released has found himself in danger over the disclosure.
According to the BBC, Argaw Ashine, a journalist who reports from Ethiopia for the Kenya-based Daily Nation, said that Ethiopian police summoned him for questioning after he was named in an October 26, 2009 U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.
The cable, which discusses the Ethiopian government’s harassment of the press, refers to an unidentified government source from the Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) who provided Ashine (identified as Ashene in the cable) with information about a government plan to silence journalists at Addis Neger, a weekly independent newspaper that was one of Ethiopia’s leading opposition publications before it closed.
The cable was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC. The relevant paragraph in the cable reads: “Later that day, a contact within GCAO told the Addis Ababa-based Daily Nation reporter Argaw Ashene that the GCAO had drawn up a list of the six top Addis Neger officials […] who they plan to target in order to silence the newspaper’s analysis.”
Ashine told the BBC that his source had revealed to him government plans to charge the journalists under anti-terrorism laws. Although he never spoke to anyone at the U.S. embassy directly about the information, Ashine told the BBC that the embassy had been involved in subsequent discussions about ways to support the journalists. A month after the cable was written, Addis Neger ceased publication and its editors fled the country.
Last week, on September 5 and 6, officials from the GCAO summoned Ashine to their office to discuss the cable and asked to bring his press credentials with him, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He was summoned again by police on the 8th, who questioned him about the cable and told him he had 24 hours to identify the source mentioned in the cable or face unspecified consequences. Rather than identify his source, Ashine fled Ethiopia over the weekend. He declined to disclose his current whereabouts.
He told the BBC, “It’s very sad, within a week leaving your home without any preparation. I love my country and I love my job and it’s a big loss for me.”
CPJ has criticized WikiLeaks for releasing unredacted U.S. State Department cables and putting informants, sources, intelligence agents and others mentioned in the documents at risk.
“It is the first instance CPJ has confirmed in which a citation in one of the cables has caused direct repercussions for a journalist,” CPJ wrote on its web site.
But WikiLeaks accused CPJ of distorting the information in a statement released late Wednesday. The group said that Ashine was not a U.S. State Department source or informant and that he is mentioned only “in passing” in the cable. Furthermore, the organization said, CPJ had never included Ashine “in a list of journalistic related redactions processed by us,” implying that the organization is showing belated concern for someone it never expressed concern for previously.
“While, it is outrageous for a journalist to feel the need to leave their country for a period, neither is it good for the CPJ to distort the facts for marketing purposes,” the statement reads.
WikiLeaks released the unredacted cables last month after a 1.73 GB file containing the 251,000 cables had been inadvertently published online by WikiLeaks supporters.
Though the file was password-protected, that lock was made useless after a German newspaper reported that a passphrase published by the Guardian newspaper in a book released last February would allow anyone to open the file and read the unredacted cables. WikiLeaks subsequently published the documents itself, maintaining that there was no reason to hold onto them after they had already been released through other sources.